Australia’s federal integrity watchdog has cleared another hurdle after the main piece of legislation to establish it passed the House of Representatives.
The Bill to establish the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which will investigate serious or systemic corrupt conduct in the public sector, passed without division — the closest the lower house can come to a unanimous vote — on Thursday.
Debate will resume on a second Bill related to the NACC later on Thursday. The government is also aiming to pass this Bill by the end of the day.
The second, concurrent piece of legislation outlines the transition of investigative powers from the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI) to the new NACC.
The ACLEI, which has overseen bodies such as the Australian Federal Police, will be subsumed by the NACC once the new watchdog is operational.
The vote on the NACC legislation comes two weeks after a cross-party parliamentary committee issued a unanimous report in support of the government’s draft law to set up the authority while recommending a few tweaks.
The Labor caucus this week approved amendments including broader protections for journalists and their sources, as well as requiring search warrants to be approved by eligible judges rather than a nominated member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese promised the NACC before this year’s federal election. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman
The crossbench, Greens and opposition all failed to get their various amendments up in the lower house on Thursday, meaning the only amendments that passed were those that the government had previously announced.
The government has been resisting pressure from The Greens and crossbench to lower the threshold for public hearings.
Speaking in the lower house on Wednesday, Anthony Albanese defended the NACC’s ability to hold public hearings only under “exceptional circumstances” and when it was in the public interest to do so.
The Prime Minister said the threshold “strikes the right balance to ensure the benefits of holding public hearings are balanced against potential negative impacts”.
“Another key part of the commission’s independence has to be ensuring the decision as to whether a hearing is held in public is a decision that rests entirely in the hands of the commissioner, that is the point,” Mr Albanese said.
“That’s the way in which best practice should operate.”
Independent David Pocock is expected to be among the crossbench senators who support the Bill in the upper house. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage
Mr Albanese urged all 151 MPs and 76 senators to support the NACC, which Labor has promised will be equipped with the powers of a royal commission to investigate corruption.
The NACC legislation will head to the Senate, where a final vote is expected next week, as Labor forges ahead with passing the Bill before its self-imposed end-of-year deadline.
More amendments are expected to be made to the Bill in the upper house.
The Coalition has continued to raise concerns about a carve out which specifies union officials are not automatically within the scope of the NACC for exercising powers under commonwealth law, such as the right of entry on worksites.
Despite these concerns, the Coalition is likely to support the Bill in the Senate, meaning a crossbench fight to have the exceptional circumstances threshold for public hearings removed or relaxed will probably be defeated.
Independent senators David Pocock and Jacqui Lambie are expected to be among the members of the upper house crossbench who also vote for the legislation.
The government plans to have the NACC up and running by mid-2023.
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